Words that are only a vowel different from each other naturally trick language users all the time, natives and non-natives alike.
Just like “bad” and “bed,” “pat” and “pet,” and “mat” and “met,” the words “than” and “then” only differ in their middle vowel sound.
So, if you’ve been having a challenging time distinguishing the two, the post you are reading right now should make your day a little brighter.
Without further ado, let us start with a quick answer.
What is the difference between “than” and “then”?
“Than” and “then” are common words that differ in their syntactical categories or “parts of speech.” “Than” is used either as a conjunction or preposition for comparison reasons, while “then” is often used as an adverb and sometimes an adjective or a noun to denote an indefinite time in the past.
Comparing “than” and “then” in a nutshell
“Than” is a function word used for comparing two things, whereas “then” is used for denoting time, sequence, or implication.
To be able to compare and contrast two items in English, we make use of “than” either as a conjunction or preposition in a sentence.
We also commonly make use of determiners like “more” or less” together with “than,” especially when estimating numbers or figures.
Meanwhile, “then” is mainly used as an adverb of time to denote the meaning “before” or “at that time” – something that is helpful when talking about the indefinite past.
Or, it may also be used as a conjunctive adverb to denote sequences of actions, similar to saying “next” or “afterward” – this is useful when giving directions or instructions.
As you can see, the meaning of “than” and “then” can only be differentiated clearly when the words are put in context.
So, when talking about comparisons, remember to always use “than.” But, bear in mind (not “bare” in mind) to always choose “then” when indicating time or sequence.
Now that we have had an initial grasp of how and when to use “than” and “then,” it’s time to know more about how to use each word to make grammatical sentences.
The following sections discuss “than” and “then” in ample detail to help you understand more about how each word works.
The meaning of “than” in detail
Unlike “then,” “than” is always either a conjunction or preposition but never an adverb when used in a sentence.
So, it is never grammatical to use “than” when you actually mean the adverb “then” and vice versa.
Knowing the difference between the conjunctive and prepositional usage of “than” should help you avoid any future mistakes, confusion, and miscommunication.
“Than” the conjunction
The conjunction “than” is used to connect two or more clauses together in a single sentence, as this is what conjunctive elements do in sentence construction.
“Than” is typically used to introduce the second idea that is being compared in the sentence, such as in the next example:
The example above is a complex sentence containing three separate ideas combined into one to be able to describe an event.
The than-clause is made up of one independent and one dependent idea that represents the subject’s life at the time described in the sentence.
Moreover, The conjunction “than” may also be used to contrast two or more ideas in a sentence, particularly to represent the idea of exception.
Although only one word comes after “than” in the example above, the succeeding word still represents a complete clause.
To understand what a clause specifically is and what it entails, you may also refer to our text covering the difference between clauses and phrases in detail.
The example sentence is in the imperative mood, and hence, it is addressed to an imaginary “you” that can be contextually understood when making commands and requests.
“Than” the preposition
You may have noticed that “than” can also be followed by a noun phrase but does not entail a complete idea.
This happens when “than” is used as a preposition in a sentence, just like what is usually done with prepositions like “despite,” “since,” “until,” “between,” and so on.
The easiest way to differentiate the preposition “than” from the conjunction “than” is to check the word or words that it connects afterward.
Here’s an example of how the preposition “than” works in context:
And here’s how you would use the conjunction “than” to express exactly the same idea:
In terms of punctuation usage, a comma is placed before “than” when it is used to introduce a parenthetical statement – something that is used to add emphasis to a sentence.
Contrastingly, a comma has to be avoided before “than” if and when it introduces an idea that is grammatically crucial to the whole sentence.
So, no comma should be placed before the conjunction or preposition “than” if and when the succeeding elements are vital to completely form the meaning of the target sentence.
The meaning of “then” in detail
Just like “than,” a comma is not placed before “then” when it introduces a grammatically-critical idea in a sentence.
However, there are also specific cases wherein a comma should come before “then” in a sentence, such as when it is used in the “if-then” sentence construction.
But, unlike “than,” “then” is never used as a conjunction and preposition. This is because “then” is actually either an adverb, an adjective, or even a noun.
To see how each to use “then” in each of the categories mentioned, the following subsections explain them in detail.
“Then” the adverb
By and large, “then” is an adverb that represents an indefinite time, which is useful when recalling an event but not necessarily focusing on the exact time when it occurred.
The adverb “then” works similarly as the time expressions “at that time,” “at that moment,” “before,” “some time ago,” or “at some point in the past.”
Here’s how the adverb of time “then” works in a sentence:
As you can see, it is impossible to replace “then” with “than” in the example above as the sentence would not make sense at all.
“Then” in the last example is something that would tell you as to “when” the subject was married, which is in the past.
The sentence now implies that the subject may be legally single or already deceased at the time of describing the event.
“Then” the adjective
Sometimes, “then” may also be used as an adjective to still denote the meaning “at an indefinite time in the past.”
To use “then” as an adjective, it is typically paired with a noun and hyphenated midway, thereby forming what we refer to as a compound adjective.
You will notice that in the example above, the compound adjective “then-boyfriend” is simply similar to the word “ex-boyfriend.”
Evidently enough, this word pattern is also not possible with the word “than.”
“Then” the noun
Last but not least, “then” may also be sometimes used as a noun to indicate something like “a time before.” “that time,” or “a time in the past.”
This usage is often achieved by using the prepositions “since” and “by,” such as in the examples below:
Clearly enough, substituting “then” with “than” in the last two examples would not make any sense as well.
Common expressions using “than”
At this point, we have already covered the linguistic nuances between “than” and “then.”
But, it will also help more if we take a look at some common expressions that make use of each of these two confusing words.
“More than” is what you would use when you are comparing an idea to something with a relatively lower extent.
This expression means “extremely” and is used rhetorically for persuasion or emphasis. An adjective often comes after “more than” when this happens.
Alternatively, you may also use “more than” to subjectively describe a greater amount of something, such as in the example below:
Similar to how “more than” is used, “less than” may also be used to rhetorically describe a lower extent of an emotional state.
Or, it can also be used to estimate figures, amounts, or units of measurement just like in the example below:
Meanwhile, “rather than” is what you can use to denote the same meaning as “instead of,” such as in contrasting two ideas with dissimilar weight or extent.
Hence, it is incorrect to say “rather then” when expressing something as described above.
No later than
“No later than” is particularly indicative of a point time that does not go beyond the approximated or specified time being referred to.
For instance, you can use “no later than” to mean “not after a specified time in the future,” which also means “before the time being described.”
Common expressions and sentences using “then”
Now, let us also look into expressions using “then” to see how it works in context.
Remember that there is no way that “than” can be used to conveniently replace “then” in the following expressions.
The phrase “but then” is also used for contrasting ideas. Its meaning is closer to “but” rather than “than.”
To put it simply, you can use “but then” to mean “after all” or “on the other hand” in a sentence, just like in the next example:
“Even then” is something we could use to insist on either a fact or opinion despite a certain circumstance that has occurred.
In other words, “even then” can be used in a sentence to mean “despite that” or “in spite of something.”
Then and now
“Then and now” is a time expression that roughly means “before and after” or, more precisely, “in the past and now” or “ever since.”
Every now and then
Finally, “every now and then” is a time expression you would use to describe an event that occurs “from time to time” rather than “all the time.”
This expression contextually works the same as “every once in a while” or “occasionally.”
Frequently Asked Questions on “Than” vs. “Then”
Which is correct, “more than” or “more then”?
“More than” is the right expression and not “more then.” This phrase is used when describing something that carries more weight or extent than what is expected.
How can we use “than” vs. “then” in a sentence?
“Than” is used for comparisons or contrasts, while “then” is used for denoting a time expression indicative of the indefinite past.
Should it be “no later than” or “no later then”?
“No later than” is the grammatically-correct expression and not “no later then.” “No later than” is a phrase one would use to describe something that must not be done after the specified or approximated time, such as in “no later than three pm today” or “no later than the end of the month.”
While it is natural to get ticked by some of the most common words in English, we cannot just leave this linguistic matter to the experts in the field.
It is also our job as everyday language users to use language more clearly and precisely to prevent misinterpretation, or worse, misinformation.
That’s all for now. Please do join us again at Linguaholic next time for more interesting topics to explore!
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.